by Alison Hooker
Saudi Aramco annuitants returned to all corners of the Kingdom during the 2019 KSA Expat Reunion, from Jubail to Madain Salih and points in between. (Photos by Alison Hooker, Cheri Saner, and Art Clark)
Dhahran — “A priceless gift to us and we cannot say enough great things about this trip!” Karen Gadai Johnson wrote at the conclusion of the 2019 KSA Expat Reunion.
Mohammed Waheed, retiree and former president of the Saudi Aramco Employees Association (SAEA), enjoys participating in a sword dance at the SAEA Dinner under the Stars. The 10-day reunion was packed with more than 100 activities and trips, providing a schedule that kept participants and volunteers alike busy over the duration of the event.
She brought her children with her from the U.S. to share with them where their grandparents had worked and where she was raised — the first time she had returned to Kingdom in more than 30 years.
Her words and feelings were echoed by many of the more than 500 happy reunion attendees as they enjoyed the event’s Farewell Luncheon hosted by Nabeel A. Al-Jama’, vice president of Saudi Aramco Corporate Affairs, and Community Services.
Rekindling Memories, Seeing a New Kingdom
For most of the visiting retirees, “brats,” and their families, the 10-day reunion event was a busy time packed full of trips and activities designed to rekindle memories and showcase the many developments and changes that have taken place throughout the Kingdom.
“If you come over here now, you see something that is totally different — very positive changes,” commented retiree Paul Sutterlin. “There is more of a museum milieu to experience regarding traditional Saudi culture. You don’t need the same spirit of adventure that you needed coming in the ‘60s. Back then, you really were in a very different culture. Now, there are many more aspects of life familiar to outsiders. I think it’s a very positive thing to open up Saudi to the outside world.”
Amie and Roger Power came to the reunion as part of their honeymoon. Roger and his brother, Glenn, grew up in Abqaiq in the 1960s and ‘70s. It was Amie’s first visit to the Kingdom, and she said: “The image I had from the media was totally different to my experience. Everyone has been so welcoming, so gracious. One gentleman even left his store to walk us around al-Khobar and show us some new things and places to go.”
More Than 100 Activities
A record-breaking program of more than 100 activities and trips was on offer, many illustrating how the Kingdom is developing and changing with a view to tourism. In collaboration with Saudi Aramco’s Transportation and Aviation departments, groups of reunion guests were able to experience longer visits to Abha and Asir, Riyadh, and Jiddah, as well as day trips to Shaybah, al-Hasa, Madain Salih, and al-Uqair. It was a new experience for many to be on trips handled entirely by knowledgeable and helpful local Saudi guides.
Before she retired in 2009, Kathleen (Berni) Wright from the U.K. used to plan, coordinate, and lead trips for the Saudi Aramco Employees Association (SAEA), so she was particularly interested and encouraged to see how this industry is developing.
“They are doing a very good job,” she said of the tour companies partnering with the reunion team. “They know what they are doing, and they are looking after everyone very well. It is the small touches that make the difference.”
Retiree Kathleen (Berni) Wright shares stories from when she worked for Abdulaziz Al-Falih with his son, HE Khalid A. Al-Falih (right), and his grandson, Abdulaziz. The 2019 KSA Expat Reunion not only provides a way for expatriate workers to revisit their working days at Saudi Aramco, but also maintains a crucial link in the history of our company and the generations of people who have worked here.
Welcomed by Dignitaries and Officials
In addition to the Welcome Dinner hosted by president and CEO Amin Nasser, there were also a number of other special events in the program. Sixty reunion guests were warmly welcomed to the Eastern Province at a reception held by Eastern Province Governor HRH Prince Saud ibn Nayif ibn ‘Abd Al-‘Aziz Al Sa’ud in Dammam.
The group was accompanied by Khalid K. Al Mulhim, Saudi Aramco general manager of Government Affairs, and Ali M. Baluchi, chairman of the 2019 KSA Reunion Steering and Organizing Committee. The Governor expressed his sincere desire that the reunion guests enjoy their return to their previous home in the Kingdom and take time to rekindle their many happy memories. He also highlighted the many and great changes happening within the Saudi economy, society and community, and hoped the visitors would appreciate the transformation.
Annuitants Steve Guyon and Jane Ollerhead thanked the Governor for his generosity, and Baluchi then presented HRH with a special gift as a token of the group’s appreciation of the tremendous hospitality offered by the Eastern Province to the event.
Another group of reunion guests had the unexpected opportunity of being flown to Riyadh for a dinner hosted by HE Khalid A. Al-Falih, Minister of Energy, Industry, and Mineral Resources and Chairman of the Saudi Aramco Board of Directors, to meet HRH Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Sa’ud, the newly appointed ambassador to the U.S.
Those fortunate guests also enjoyed a spectacular sound and light show illustrating the history of the Kingdom against the backdrop of the Ad Diriyah Gate World Heritage site, as well as guided tours of the area.
From top-left, the Dhahran Oasis Quilters Guild provided the perfect message to the arriving annuitants and then treated them to a miniquilt show; the Cherry family, Warren and Joan and children Ross and Jacqueline, return to their previous home in the Hills area; this group of retirees nabbed top honors on Quiz Night; now retired Dhahran Women’s Group members enjoy a picnic for International Women’s Day; and the Cornwall family enjoys the SAEA dinner.
Witnesses to Change
The visitors were fascinated by the developments they have seen in the Kingdom. The most obvious change has been the progress and status of women in the workforce. The teams of female guides at Ad Diriyah and Ithra, for instance, made a most favorable impression, as did seeing women driving. Some of the female visitors, such as Kathy Brown from Canada, came equipped with their international driver’s license and were excited to be able to drive themselves in the Kingdom for the first time. ”It was an amazing and freeing experience after years of having to rely on drivers to take me anywhere,” said Brown.
Others noticed the advances made in technology such as the range of apps and ease of their use in the Kingdom. Laura Klemme (U.S.) was impressed by the hotel where she was staying and how many TV channels she could watch now. She remembered only being able to watch Aramco TV when she lived here previously. Klemme was also surprised by the freedom to take photographs.
One point of sadness for many was seeing the closing of many much-loved shops in the older part of al-Khobar since they were last here. As Unna Ramanathan (U.S. retiree spouse) observed: “It’s nice to keep the essence and character of the old shopping areas. Shopping malls are fine, but you can visit those anywhere.”
Anita Sutterlin agreed, saying: “I loved sitting down with the shopkeeper and drinking tea while you bartered over a rug. I miss that personal connection.”
HE Khalid A. Al-Falih, Minister of Energy, Industry, and Mineral Resources, speaks to guests at the head table at a special dinner in Riyadh, including, to his right: retiree Fred Blanchard; U.S. chargé d’affaires in Riyadh, Christopher Henzel; and Saudi Arabia’s newly named ambassador to the U.S., HRH Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Sa’ud.
Impressions of Ithra
A particular focus of the reunion program were tours of Ithra, which all of the guests had the opportunity to attend. Like many others, visiting Ithra was a highlight for Rolie Carron, a Canadian emergency nurse for the Saudi Aramco Medical Services Organization (SAMSO) for 23 years. “It was amazing and stunning with so much information in there for learning more about Saudi Arabia. I spent a whole day there on my own, roaming around … what an accomplishment it is,” she said.
“I left before it was completed, so I was so excited to come back and get the chance to experience it. So much to see and do there, and it’s going to offer so much to educate the public — it’s fascinating,” she added.
Chris and Helenka DeLuca, also Canadian retirees, commented on how they “very much enjoyed visiting the Eastern Province again and seeing how things have developed and how facilities have improved.
“We loved the beautiful beaches and had a most enjoyable boat cruise from Jubail. It was interesting to see how al-Hasa has changed and become easier for visitors to navigate. We loved seeing the caves again.”
Coming Together for the Reunion
The strength and diversity offered by the reunion program was reflective of the dynamic energy created by Saudi Aramco communities working together, with volunteers coming from various parts of the company, Saudi retirees and self-directed groups, including the SAEA, the Dhahran Women’s Group, the Dhahran Art Group, Dhahran Oasis Quilters Guild, and many others.
Volunteers cheerfully gave countless hours to welcome guests, answer questions, led trips and tours, organize hospitality, create and run events, and generally ensure the comfort of the visitors. Volunteer coordinator Rubina Dharsey said: “It provided an excellent way to give something back to our community. I valued the opportunity to use my skills to coordinate more than 100 volunteers who not only provided much needed assistance, but also had a wonderful experience in the process and helped create lasting memories for both the guests and themselves.”
HE Ali I. Al-Naimi shakes hands with guests at a special luncheon held in Dhahran as reunion chairman Ali M. Baluchi accompanies the Advisor to the Royal Court. Baluchi said Al-Naimi — “a childhood friend” — encouraged him to carry and manage the next expatriate reunion in the Kingdom.
A Five-star Reunion
Baluchi believes the reunion deserved a five-star rating.
“The 11 days were greatly enjoyed by the 550 annuitants and their families, but we enjoyed their visit equally as much,” he said. “The kind feedback and sincere appreciation offered by the dear visitors gladdened our hearts. We commend them for their energy and enthusiasm throughout their stay in following the busy program.”
As is always the case, it was the incredible warmth of traditional Saudi hospitality that had the biggest impact on everyone attending the reunion. Whether at the CEO dinner, over coffee and tea at a desert camp fire, or at a resort lunch, the welcome that guests experienced was truly phenomenal. Many commented on the kindness and generosity of the Saudi people they have met. They will definitely be returning home as unofficial ambassadors for the Kingdom.
by Jessica Weirmier
Volunteers played an important role in helping the guests to register.
Dhahran — For every six former Aramcons attending March’s KSA Expat Reunion 2019, there was a volunteer on hand helping make this an experience to remember.
From March 11 to March 21, the Dhahran community was flooded with groups of annuitants, “brats,” and their families for the third annuitants’ reunion to be held in Saudi Arabia. The last reunion was held in 2015, and the first one was held approximately five years earlier. The participants came seeking to connect with a place that was once home, and the volunteers meeting them were there to help make it a memorable experience.
Dany Man was one of more than 100 volunteers who helped make the experience memorable for reunion participants. She said she found out about the need for volunteers when her friend suggested she go with her to one of the first volunteer orientation meetings being held at the Reunion House in Dhahran. The timing of the reunion worked well for her schedule and provided a way for her to give back to the community.
She got more than she expected out of the experience, she said.
“It was so fun to ask them about how they felt and to get some stories from them,” she says. “They were all very excited to be back, some after being away for almost 50 years,” Man said. “One of the ladies got very emotional when she collected her ID card. This was the first inkling I had of how much they loved their time in Saudi.”
Man signed up to help with the creation of 600 reunion identification cards — one for each participant. As they arrived and signed in, she was part of the team that handed out the ID cards.
She was joined in the ID card distribution by fellow volunteer Winki Poon, who also helped out with hospitality and trip-leading volunteering.
“As a member of the community, I just wanted to contribute a little bit,” said Poon, adding it was a pleasure being able to talk to former Aramcons, hear their stories, and enjoy their enthusiasm and energy.
For both Poon and Man, time management was a challenge for volunteering at the reunion. Volunteer spaces filled up fast through SignUpGenius, the efficient online sign up system used by organizers. “Finding a slot that I was able to volunteer at the Reunion House was difficult,” said Man. “There was none available for my schedule!”
A Wide Range of Ways in Which to Give
Volunteer commitments ranged from working on the steering committee to meet and greet annuitants, brats, and their families in the Reunion House — the central hub for the reunion.
Volunteer coordinator Rubina Dharsey said that without the volunteer spirit of today’s community, the reunion wouldn’t be near the success it was. “There’s always been a tradition of volunteering in the Saudi Aramco community, and it becomes clearly evident during events such as the reunion,” Dharsey said.
The Reunion House is located on 11th Street, near the Sixth Street security gate. It’s a small house packed with big things where annuitants can meet with other reunion goers to chat about old times over a cup of coffee or tea. It’s where events and day trips were signed up for. It’s where hospitality volunteers could help answer questions and connect participants with what they needed to know.
Day trips were as varied as tours of Ithra, to shopping in al-Khobar’s souks, from bus tours of al-Hasa, to lazy days spent on the beach. Everything imaginable lay in between, and every single tour and event didn’t happen without the effort of volunteers.
by Jessica Weirmier
Dhahran — When Tom Masso was a boy living in Dhahran, the only hill he knew was the steep one on Holmes Street where he and his buddies would race down on their bikes. Years later, although the community he left in 1971 looks vastly different, he still recalls who lived where and who did what in the neighborhoods of what is today called main camp.
Masso, now approaching 71 years old, returned to Dhahran to attend the KSA 2019 Reunion, joining hundreds of retired employees, former “brats,” and their families.
In particular, Masso took in a kids exhibition baseball game that was organized for annuitants. Masso says he was impressed by the quality of the fields and facilities. He remembers when their Little League games were played up closer to the school on Third Street. But some things remain the same. Back then, the coaches were dads, just like they still are today.
Fond Memories of Scouting
Another activity Masso recalled — one that was also run by many dads — was Cub Scouts. “The soap box derby was held by the library and launched off a flat bed trailer on Ibis Street,” said Masso, who made it all the way through Cub Scouts to Webelos.
He also remembers fondly the pack meetings and camping out near Abqaiq on a giant dune. “We made coffee can casseroles for breakfast, and you always knew which Scout didn’t tape up their coffee can properly, there would be eggs everywhere,” he says laughing.
As a retirement project, Masso spent some of his free time building a shadow box to mount on the wall. When finished, among other memorabilia, the shadow box will house all of his buttons, ribbons, and badges earned while a Cub Scout in Dhahran during the 1950s and ‘60s.
A Bittersweet Reunion
While reliving the memories of after-school fun, Masso also spent time remembering his mother, Alice, who died suddenly in 1962 when he was 13.
“I can hear her,” he says as he surveys the camp. She was an avid bridge player, and she kept the young Masso in line. Masso had the bittersweet opportunity to visit his mother’s resting place while on the reunion, thanks in part to an Eagle Scout project by Saudi Aramco brat Thomas Hall.
“I’m here to relive some of my past,” said Masso of his motivation to make the long journey from his home in Missouri to his former home in the Eastern Province. “You can’t just come anytime.”